clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The case for Rick and Morty

Co-creator Justin Roiland parted ways with Adult Swim over domestic violence charges, and the show will never be the same. That’s okay, it was never the same to begin with.

A old cartoon man in a field, looking peaceful.
Rick, seemingly at peace for once, on Rick and Morty.

Justin Roiland, who has voiced both Rick and Morty on Adult Swim’s sci-fi comedy cartoon Rick and Morty since 2013, won’t be doing that anymore. Adult Swim fired Roiland in late January after NBC broke the news that he was awaiting trial on two felony domestic violence charges. Roiland had been arrested in August 2020 and was formally arraigned and charged that October; the charges are one felony count of domestic battery with corporal injury and one felony count of false imprisonment by menace, violence, fraud, and/or deceit. On March 22, prosecutors dropped charges against Roiland, citing lack of evidence. While there is no word yet from the businesses that cut ties with him, Roiland said in a statement on Twitter that he was “determined to move forward and focus both on my creative projects and restoring my good name.”

Police reports, medical reports, and the affidavit supporting Roiland’s initial arrest all remain under seal, partially explaining the years of silence around the case. But as soon as the NBC story went up, the floodgates opened. On Reddit and Twitter, users posted excerpts from a 2011 episode of Roiland’s comedy chat show, The Grandma’s Virginity Podcast, in which he discusses being attracted to underage girls. (You can try and tell yourself that this is a bit, but the more context you hear, the worse it gets.)

Several young women came forward alleging that Roiland had sent them abusive and explicit messages and made unwelcome sexual advances, including when they were underage. Vox has not independently confirmed these accounts, but one accuser, musician Allie Goertz, worked officially with Rick and Morty on a concept album in 2015. Goertz—who was an adult at the time of the incident — posted screenshots of some frankly really gross texts from Roiland to her official Twitter account. (Consider that your content warning.)

The mere existence of a concept album should give you some idea of how popular Rick and Morty is. Roiland co-created the show with sitcom veteran Dan Harmon, who had just been fired from his critically beloved but low-rated series Community. The animated series was something of a consolation prize for Harmon, but it quickly ballooned in popularity on the strength of its high-concept plots, engagingly bizarre production design, and Simpsons-level joke density. Rick Sanchez is an alcoholic, cruel mad scientist; Morty Smith is his dim, insecure, horny grandson — it’s a solid comedy-team pairing. Rick’s extreme social dysfunction and attendant addiction issues were a selling point from the get-go: Adult Swim’s first press kit for the show, now an eBay collectible, was a small green hardcover book called “The Big Book of Boring Science Things by Rick Sanchez” that had a hole cut out of its pages the size and shape of a Rick and Morty-brand hip flask (also included).

Over the course of its run so far Rick and Morty has won two Emmy awards, one for The Vat of Acid Episode, in which a silly sci-fi invention first fixes and then ruins Morty’s life; and another for Pickle Rick, in which Rick turns himself into a pickle instead of going to therapy. The show has attracted high ratings and good reviews and, in the process, built a fandom that at least appears to include a disproportionate number of young men, a good number of whom seem to be interpersonally hideous.

The show’s absurd aesthetic is now practically synonymous with vape shops and Hot Topic shirts. One gag about Mulan-brand Szechuan sauce in the show’s third season resulted in a partnership with McDonald’s in which the restaurant briefly brought back the condiment. When they couldn’t get their hands on the stuff, the show’s worst fans starred in appalling videos freaking out at the Golden Arches’ staff screaming “Pickle Rick!” in the style of that Emmy-winning episode. (The episode’s denouement, in which Rick’s therapist explains to him that his pickle transformation demonstrates his fundamental immaturity, seems to have been lost on the pickle screamers.)

This is both the problem with Rick and Morty and the foundation of its popularity; it trades heavily on the adolescent suspicion that everything is stupid and lame and played out, and then it manages to delight viewers (well, me, at least) with something novel. As tiresome as it can be to discuss art in moral terms, the sitcom is a didactic form, and Rick and Morty’s morals are often abstruse, especially taking into account the show’s catholic taste in movie-reference humor and middle-school-level jokes about sex, dicks, and farts. In a single episode, the show parodies the film Alien, recites a veritable encyclopedia of jokes about kinky sex, and then expresses a difficult point about the meaninglessness of life without a person who’s bad for you, using a horrible little alien monster as a metaphor for ugly, destructive, cherished love. The contrast can give you whiplash if you’re not at least a little interested in both the utterly juvenile and the extremely personal. For many of the series’ detractors, Roiland’s exposure seems to confirm their suspicions: that Rick and Morty is popular because it emerges from the worst parts of its creators and indulges fans with similar impulses.

The way the show is made doesn’t quite bear out that reading, though. A source close to the series, who was granted anonymity to speak candidly, says that Harmon adopted the same hands-on approach in the writing of Rick and Morty that he did on Community, extensively reworking other writers’ drafts and making the show as much his own as possible. If the creators’ neuroses are on display in Rick and Morty, they aren’t Roiland’s alone. According to the source, beyond his voice acting, Roiland has had almost no involvement in the show’s day-to-day production since its third season. Harmon is Rick and Morty’s mastermind, and that bodes well for the series’ longevity, given the way workplace drama seems to have affected Harmon’s writing in the past: He returned to Community after his dismissal because the show had foundered without him, writing several of the series’ best episodes in the subsequent season.

Roiland’s departure, the source says, is not much of a loss to the staff of the show, since he’s been off working on video games, NFTs, and other shows for years now. “It’s gotta suck knowing an absentee creator could tank your otherwise pretty consistent job,” the source told Vox. A spokesperson for Roiland disputed this characterization, saying that Roiland had contributed to the writing of several Season 5 episodes, though he was not involved with the scripts for Season 6. Harmon’s agent did not return a request for comment.

Harmon was also accused of sexual misconduct, by Community writer Megan Ganz. Harmon admitted to harassing Ganz and made what Ganz generously and publicly agreed was a good-faith effort to apologize and mitigate the harm he had caused; he’s been unequivocal in condemning the nastier elements of Rick and Morty’s fan base, too. With that in mind, Rick and Morty’s preoccupations with sexual and relational harm seem a little less glib. After all, if you don’t like the idea of consuming work created in the long shadow of another person’s most shameful and debased impulses, art may not be for you. Even work we think of as harmless can hide its author’s embarrassing secrets.

Harmon is a writer with an incredible gift for story structure. Both Community and Rick and Morty cram entire narrative arcs into a few minutes of screen time; on the latter, there’s a running gag about a game called “Roy” in which the player lives an entire life during a single turn. Every time the game resurfaces, Harmon and his writers take a brief time-out to poke at the question of why art, which is artificial by definition, makes us feel genuine emotion. Harmon made this point in Community, too: In the pilot, the main character, Jeff, names a pencil “Steve”; then he breaks the pencil, to the horror of his friends.

Words, like Harmon’s characters or Jeff’s pencils, are empty vessels, and you can make them mean all kinds of things. For Rick and Morty, which is fascinated by obscenity and perversity, that understanding has all kinds of ramifications: Seussian slur “Glip-glop” is, according to Rick, “like if the N-word and the C-word had a baby, and that baby was raised by all the bad words for Jews;” Rick’s nonsense catchphrase “wubba lubba dub dub” means “I am in great pain, please help me.”

Hidden in all this clever recursion and juvenile brinkmanship are genuine human concerns. Throughout both shows, Jeff and Rick earnestly, even plaintively continue to wonder why they’re such walking disasters — at least they do when they can overcome their self-loathing long enough to get the question out. Why do people do bad things? Harmon wants to know, and he wants us to want to know.

Rick and Morty is a weird little cartoon comedy about alien monsters and sexual fetishes, but it’s probably the best cartoon comedy about alien monsters and sexual fetishes ever made. Roiland’s behavior has associated his callous, sexually depraved characters, whose actions are the insightful work of many talented people, with genuine real-world cruelty. Is that a script problem? I don’t know. I also don’t know whether it would be a script problem even Harmon can solve. But I hope he tries.

Sam Thielman is a reporter and critic whose work has been published by the New Yorker, Slate, and the Columbia Journalism Review. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and son.

Update, March 22, 9:40 am ET: This story was originally published on February 7 and has been updated to note that prosecutors dismissed the charges against Roiland.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.